Christmas Holidays

Simbang Gabi in the time of covid

Socially distanced choir singing Tagalog hymns at a Simbang Gabi at St. Edward Catholic Church in Spring, Texas. (Katrina Machetta/YJI)

Spring, TEXAS – Every year in December, I look forward to my family’s long list of Christmas traditions from special pastries to holiday vacations, but the one that goes back the longest is Simbang Gabi.

Simbang Gabi is a Filipino-Catholic tradition that is celebrated for nine days during Advent season leading up to Christmas Day as preparation for the birth of Jesus and in honor of Mary, his mother.

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A Catholic priest officiating a Simbang Gabi mass at Christ the Good Shepherd church in Spring, Texas. (Katrina Machetta/YJI)

Around the globe, wherever Filipino Catholics are, they have continued the practice.

In Greater Houston, the typical service is mainly in English with a blend of Filipino hymns. It is followed by a joyous reception where Filipino culture is shared through food, games and traditional dances.

The Filipino men wear traditional barongs, an embroidered shirt, while the Filipino women wear kimonos, or robes.

My uncle and aunt help coordinate many of the Filipino church activities in Houston, including the Simbang Gabi, so every year I look forward to seeing their great work and the joy it brings to so many people both young and old.

To me, it is important to share my Filipino culture because it opens others’ eyes around me to the customs and traditions of a place halfway across the world.

Every time I go to the Simbang Gabis, it is like I am briefly transported to the Philippines, and I light up seeing the joy, Christmas spirit and kindness in Filipinos.

As a multicultural person, I enjoy learning about religious and cultural holiday traditions.

While many long-lasting family traditions continue each year, such as having a family dinner on Christmas Day or decorating the Christmas tree, we have had to adjust some of them this year, like the Simbang Gabi.

The Simbang Gabis are celebrated at all the Catholic churches in the Philippines and many in distant lands where Filipinos live.

I usually attend many of the nine masses, but this year it has been hard to attend even a few given the COVID-19 guidelines and gathering restrictions.

This year, because of the pandemic, fewer people were allowed in church, reception parties were cancelled and everyone who attended, including the choir, had to remain socially distanced.

I am disappointed that Simbang Gabis could not be the same as before COVID-19, but the livestreamed masses showed that sometimes life doesn’t always go according to plan — and that is OK.

Many parishioners watched the virtual Simbang Gabi in the comfort of their homes, but it is just not the same.

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St. Edward Catholic Church’s modified Simbang Gabi service in 2020 to fit CDC guidelines. (Katrina Marchetta/YJI)

The camera doesn’t capture the people in the audience, their joy, their camaraderie, their love and the melodious music that is something I really enjoy.

Many Filipino Catholics happily greet loved ones and friends through their native Filipino languages (there are many, including Tagalog, the best known). But this year, Facetime and Messenger had to replace in-person meetings.

Attending for the first time since the pandemic, I saw the Simbang Gabis in a whole new way.

While many people look forward to the reception party, I learned that even without one, Simbang Gabis are a beautiful way for Filipino Catholics to celebrate the season.


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